Written by: Alison King

Winona Hartvikson and Ultimo are aiming for WEG.

Thumbnail for Winona Hartvikson: Fast Track to the Top

Susan J Stickle Photo

For as long as she can remember, Winona (Noni) Hartvikson has had the horse bug. Born in the US midwest, she rode ponies at her uncle’s farm as a small child and at the age of 10, when her parents moved to BC, she convinced them to buy her a horse of her own.

“I rode that horse everywhere,” Noni says. “On the roads, through the farms, jumping, swimming, racing the neighbours’ horses, bareback, English, Western you name it.” She even gave 50-mile endurance riding a try. Then came the necessary 10-year focus on higher education and career, meaning that horses took a back seat for a time. As the dust settled, the riding bug reappeared, this time with dressage as her discipline of choice.

In 1992, a life-changing medical diagnosis changed Noni’s way of thinking. “When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I decided that I was going to live every day to the fullest. I also realized that MS would eventually stop me from riding and competing, so I looked for other ways to stay connected to the community and the sport I love.”

And stay connected she did. Noni became a basic dressage judge and a USEF western dressage judge, in addition to serving on the boards of Vancouver’s Southlands Riding Club and Equestrian Canada’s dressage committee. She then took up the major task of developing the fledgling Dressage BC organization and spent the better part of five years helping it grow and thrive. At the same time she continued to ride and develop her own dressage skills with the goal of riding to the best of her abilities.

In May of 2017, Noni met with Clive Milkins, the newly-appointed Equestrian Canada High Performance Para-Dressage technical leader. “Para-dressage competition and the World Equestrian Games were not even on my radar when Clive was asked to come and see me ride Ultimo, my 2007 Andalusian gelding,” she says. “Clive said, ‘I love the horse. I’m looking to put a team together for WEG. Get him out to the gold shows and see how he does. If he does well, then you should go to Tryon [CPEDI3*] in September.’

“The idea seemed unachievable,” Noni continues. “Ultimo was very well-trained, but he had not been shown and there was zero time to acclimatize him. Nevertheless, with a diagnosis that promised to get worse, I felt it was now or never. I ran the idea by my husband, coach, and some friends, and they all said, ‘go for it.’ So I did. Everybody we encountered helped. Ultimo rocked the gold show season and qualified to compete in Tryon that fall. All our expectations were exceeded there.” At the Tryon CPEDI3*, the pair had a second and two thirds, cracking the 70 per cent mark in the Freestyle.

After Tryon, Noni shipped Ultimo to Florida for training and she went home. It quickly became apparent that the horse was very unhappy without her, so she flew back. “Ultimo met me with big sad eyes and rubbed me all over with his neck and nose,” she recounts. “Who knew a horse could form that kind of bond? But I had a husband, another Andalusian, and several dogs; what was I to do? With my mind on WEG, I stayed and rode for five-and-a-half months. I missed my husband’s birthday, Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my family, but I had full support from home.”

The pair had a successful winter competition season in Wellington, FL, and hoped to earn their final two qualifying scores for Team Canada at the WEG Test Event held in Tryon in April. “As anyone who has competed at this level knows, things don’t always go as planned,” explained Noni. The pair managed to improve with every Grade 1 test, culminating in a third-place finish in the Freestyle. “I got just one out of the three scores I was hoping for in Tryon, which meant we had to travel to the final qualifier in Ottawa. As luck would have it, I got a nasty case of the flu just in time for that competition. With the help of my great support team, I rode, slept, rode, was fed, watered – and repeat – until we earned three top scores which we used to complete our WEG qualification.

“As icing on the cake, in Ottawa Ultimo received the awards for Equestrian Canada Para-Dressage Horse of the Year, was the para-dressage champion for the show, and I had the great honour to win the Sandy Mitchell Leading Canadian Athlete award as well as being named Equestrian Canada’s first Para-Dressage Athlete of the Year.”

Noni’s success in the international ring has helped blast her way up the FEI world rankings to land in the number four spot for her level at the end of May. With a team spot all but assured, Noni is making preparations to represent Canada at the upcoming World Equestrian Games.

Life’s challenges have helped Noni become a better rider and horseperson, and her journey to WEG has highlighted the remarkable support of the people around her. “Over the years I’ve evolved into a different kind of rider,” she explains. “Of necessity, I have to feel more and ride less. I also have a huge trust and connection with my horses. I ride with two whips because my legs don’t work. My feet have to be tied into the stirrups because I can’t feel them. I can’t walk, but I am independent on my horses.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to ride and compete. I can’t say enough about all of the people who helped me get to this point. They are good, positive, generous people, many of whom I wouldn’t have met had I not been on this journey. In particular, my friend and sponsor Jane Macdonald took an active interest right from the beginning. My trainer Betsy Steiner’s extensive experience has been invaluable. Clive Milkins has always believed we could do it and has coached, mentored, braided, jogged, fed – you name it, he’s done it. He has mentored and supported me all the way. Most of all, my husband has provided the strength behind all of this, assuring that money was available, keeping the farm going, listening to my daily phone calls, helping to solve problems from afar, being my everyday eyes on the ground and taking care of me and my horses. Many, many others who lent helping hands along the way have made the journey amazing. I will always consider them my friends.”